This is actually for the September 2010 DateMe challenge. I wrote it within a week and, honestly, I intended this to be short… but it ended up to be 26 pages… Yup, that's either dedication, or my inability to actually do one-shots. This could have been, now that I think about it, multi-chaptered, but I am also pretty sure that if it was multi-chaptered, it would never be finished because I lose interest in my stories too fast.
I do hope, however, that you will enjoy this!
Heart-Shaped Sticky Notes
Naruto Uzumaki was a lot of things. He was a loud mouth, a passionate prankster, a wild child, a ramen devotee, and he was much too energetic for his own good, much less for the wellbeing of his teammates – ANBU or not. He was rash, rough, bold, brave and, at times, intuitively and instinctively (and rarely) insightful. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and village, and had no qualms about making his feelings known (loudly and with unnecessary hand gestures), always genuine and honest. He could also be, contrary to common belief, silent in midst of an important scouting mission, cunning in luring the enemy to their deaths and surprisingly level-headed when his charge was being kidnapped while his teammates were pinned under kunai and wires.
Naruto Uzumaki was, above all, spontaneous, both in his upbringing and career. His public life was, and always had been, very… public. He had not done, or attempted to, hide anything from many people, even less so when his secret of being the jinchuriki of the Kyuubi had been revealed in a resounding bang during the Pein invasion. He was someone that couldn't be tied down – slippery and sneaky – spontaneous.
It was good, then, that his private life had settled down to something, somewhat, sort of, stable. It had been a recent thing too, a slight shift in his life, that somehow, sort of, resulted in a daily routine. He hadn't had a daily routine since the days back at the Academy when all his days had been composed of going and then coming back from the Academy, and then sleep, and then going and then coming back from the Academy. With his illustrious and glorified career as one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, ninja in Konoha… a daily routine seemed redundant when everyday was different from the others, whether he was being called into the Hokage's Office at three in the morning, helping an old lady with her cat stuck up in a tree, or getting pissed-drunk with the Rookie Nine late into the night… morning... whichever. His days had been equally spontaneous.
It was only a recent thing, therefore, that his life began to resemble some… normalcy, some stableness, however small and inconspicuous, however cute and uplifting, however different it was from everyone else. At least, in his life, this one thing was a constant, no matter how long he had been away at a mission or how drunk he got after downing shot after shot with the Rookie Nine late into the night… morning… whichever.
Which was why, when he found himself waking up at nine in the morning, not according to routine, he quickly shot up like he had been struck by one of those accused chidori his best f-ing friend was so very good at constructing. In a bout of panic and shame, he rushed to jump out of bed… only to come crashing down onto the hardwood floor when his legs were all twisted in his sheets. He loved his sheets. He particularly loved clean, fresh sheets. He particularly, particularly loved to come home to a set of clean, fresh sheets after two months abroad on a mission. It was one of those recent stabilities he had acquired. But at the moment, with his chin smarting from colliding with the floor, Naruto wasn't feeling very fond of those clean, fresh sheets. He was feeling rather vindictive, actually.
Groaning, he pulled the sheets from his legs and stood to find that he was in the same clothes as last night. Confused, and a tad disoriented, he looked to his alarm clock and, much to his relief, saw a small, inconspicuous, cute, purple flower-shaped sticky note stuck on his nightstand.
You were drunk last night.
"Ahh…" he sighed to himself in comprehension, running a hand over his unruly hair.
The note explained everything in its neat cursive writing. It also explained why his alarm didn't go off until nine.
He tugged at his clothes, feeling sticky and stiff, and meandered into the bathroom for a shower. He could smell the stink coming off of him and was glad that (not for the first time) he had the Kyuubi's chakra to help neutralize the alcohol he had consumed the night before. Otherwise he'd be as hung over as he was ramen obsessed.
She must have set his alarm to go off later, to allow him to sleep in. She had always been courteous like that.
Smiling, he reached for the shower faucet, only to pause when he saw another flower-shaped sticky note right on the shower wall.
Remember to wash behind your ears.
Chuckling, he pulled the sticky note off the wall and remembered to wash behind his ears, according to her instructions, however unexpected and strict she could sometimes (and surprisingly) be. It was not much of a shock then, with a towel wrapped around his waist and him getting ready to brush his teeth, that he found another sticky note on the bathroom mirror.
Pick up dry cleaning!
He blinked, trying to recall the day, and then realized that she was right. A second later and he winced. He shouldn't have second guessed her; she always knew when he had to pick up his dry cleaning. She was, after all, more organized than him.
Keeping the note in hand, he quickly got dressed and then made for the kitchen for something to fill his empty stomach. But when he pulled open the fridge door, he was taken aback to find nothing but a single cinnamon bun on a plate with a note attached to it.
Milk has expired and cheese was mouldy. I left this for you though! Enjoy! I baked it yesterday. :) (Get groceries! And no ramen!)
Naruto smirked, feeling giddy at the treat and hurriedly placed the cinnamon bun in his mouth to free his hands. Wiping the sugar from his fingers onto his pants (not that he cared), he peeled the grocery note from the plate and pasted it onto the dry cleaning one – putting both in his pockets for later use.
Feeling a lot happier with half the pastry down his stomach, he got ready to leave, pausing momentarily to read the note on his front door: Your keys!
Surprised, he patted his pockets and found that, indeed, his apartment keys were not there. Troubled, he checked the key hooks at the front door and saw that all four were bare. He searched the living room and the kitchen, pulling open his nightstand drawer to find another note: Not here, I checked last night. I think maybe in your pants from yesterday? I wasn't going to check! ;P
He scrambled for the pair of pants he had tossed into the laundry hamper half an hour ago and – eureka! – they were there!
"Found ya!" Naruto exclaimed rather proudly with a fist pump. Nothing could best him!
Grinning, he downed the rest of his breakfast and scrambled to the ground floor to check his mail. He'd be lying if he said he was excited to get his bills, because he was more excited to read the small note she always left in the small metal box.
Have an awesomesauce day, Naruto-kun!
"That's a new one," he chuckled to himself, shutting his mailbox closed without seeing to the bills. They could wait.
Energized, he stepped out into the bright morning with a wide grin, teeth all white and even. The sky was clear, all blue with fluffy clouds, lazy-like with the gentle breeze. It was going to be a nice day – an awesomesauce day. He chuckled again. She was surprising sometimes.
Too bad he missed her that morning.
Refusing to let the fact that he was behind schedule get him down, Naruto pulled out the notes in his pockets.
"Groceries first," he decided.
Humming to himself, he went to the nearest grocery store and grabbed a basket. Under the florescent lights, he tried to remember what kind of foods he had in stock. Obviously he needed milk. Cheese wasn't a necessity; he was never home often enough to actually finish a block… unless she came over to cook… Oh, and no ramen, according to her instructions. He rolled his eyes. He already had five boxes in his cupboards… not that she needed to know that. He frowned. Maybe she already knew that, and that was why she told him not to buy more?
She was sneakier than him at times.
"Isn't that the Naruto Uzumaki?"
He looked to his left and noticed a group of girls raking their eyes down his form like they were planning on undressing him right then and there… in the family-rated grocery store… in the morning – not that he minded, of course. After all, being one of the most powerful ninjas in the village (and the world) had its benefits, and being so well-known and destined to be the next Hokage (what with the current one being his sensei and his father being the Fourth and his father being the sensei of his sensei, etc.), Naruto was quite a catch – for female or male. He certainly made enough money and his training kept his body toned and attractive. Hell, just last month the girls in Konoha had voted him as the man featured in most in their wet dreams!
"Take that, Sasuke!" Naruto thought cheekily, giving a wink to the girls.
Tight shirts and short skirts, they squealed at his "audacity," their complexion flawless and their beauty stunning. Naruto was honest enough with himself that if one of them asked, he'd take her on a date and then bang her in one night. That was what he was familiar with, on and off a mission, but he couldn't really see anything farther than a fast fuck. Those girls, so willing to drape themselves over him and brag about him to all their friends, were so… generic. At first it had been fun and exciting, that someone would… love him. He had always been so deprived of love and had always been searching for it… But now he knew it wasn't love. It was just a one-night stand. It wasn't like-
"Naruto." Neji was suddenly in front of him, his hair and apparel as flawless as ever, his Hyuga eyes hard and grave. "Good morning."
He wasn't going to admit that he hadn't felt the ANBU at all, or that he'd been too distracted to notice anything, period. Instead Naruto gave him a wide grin and slapped the Hyuga good-naturedly on the arm. "Neji! How're you not hung over from last night?"
Neji raised a brow, however slight, and refused to look down to where Naruto had slapped him. "I'm a Hyuga."
"Rrright," Naruto mocked.
Neji narrowed his eyes. "You doubt?"
"Never," was Naruto's quick answer. He had learned ages ago to never trample on Neji's Hyuga pride. It was sorta like dealing with Sasuke… but with less chances of a chidori up his ass. "So what's up? You getting groceries?"
"No." Neji was blunt, neutralizing Naruto's over enthusiasm with his own monotone. "Hinata-sama told me to give you this."
The Hyuga handed Naruto a yellow square sticky note: Milk, apples, tomato sauce, ground beef, bread, eggs, bacon. I'll make spaghetti tomorrow night!
Naruto's first thought was: "Yum, spaghetti!"
His second thought, accompanied by a frown, was said aloud, "She must've run out of those flower notes; yellow ones are for back-up purposes only. Not as cute, are they?"
Neji raised another brow. How Naruto had functioned so long without his cousin's notes were beyond him. He had once believed, as did most of their group, that Naruto had been autonomous, almost mechanical, in that he hadn't needed much substance (except ramen) or supervision to function properly. It wasn't until Naruto had started to operate under those sticky notes did they notice the difference, both in his health and demeanour. It seemed to them, then, that the jinchuriki needed to be constantly taken care of, and none of them knew how badly until Sakura had to help Naruto retrieve his dry cleaning… a year's worth of clothes he had kept forgetting about. They were all very thankful that Hinata had stepped in. Only his cousin would have the patience, and strength, to deal with such idiocy.
"Maybe I should get her some more sticky notes?" Naruto asked, breaking Neji from his thoughts. Obviously the blond was waiting for the Hyuga's approval for his suggestion. Neji did, after all, know Hinata more than he did, and he certainly didn't want to disappoint her, not when she was so helpful and encouraging and just…
She was a constant, a stableness, in his life.
Neji frowned and advised, "If you deem it necessary, then you should. She has done a lot for you."
The Hyuga couldn't believe he'd said it, but he really couldn't let his cousin be taken advantage of by this idiot. Saviour of Konoha or not, Naruto Uzumaki was a heartbreaker. (He hadn't missed how the blond had flirted with those girls earlier.)
"Yeah," Naruto mumbled, and then brightened when he made the decision. "Yeah! You're right! I gotta get her something. Something cute! Cuter than flowers."
Neji closed his eyes, hard. Naruto could be high pitched sometimes. Nodding, the Hyuga decided then to retreat. "I must go to see the Hokage now. Have a good day, Naruto."
"Yep!" the blond said, thinking that "awesomesauce" should be tagged onto Neji's "good day." "Seeya later!"
The Hyuga left Naruto before the jinchuriki could ask him for help on the sticky notes. The blond wasn't exactly known for his skills in gift purchasing, always blundering on Sakura's birthday presents and always forgetting Hinata's or even forgetting if Hinata had a birthday altogether. (The only reason how Naruto could even remember Ino's was because Ino was sure to announce it a week well in advance… and the following seven days after.)
Naruto watched the Hyuga leave, feeling excited at the prospect of getting Hinata something, and began to tackle the grocery list she had given him. Fortunately he was quite familiar with the floor plan of the store, what with Hinata always dragging him with her during her – their – grocery trips, and was able to get everything on the list without a mishap.
It wasn't until he was in the stationary department when he stumbled to a halt. He felt rather lost in the aisle actually. He hadn't known that sticky notes could have so many colours, shapes or sizes – or number of sheets! He didn't know which she preferred or even which he preferred. He didn't want to get her something she didn't like! And it didn't take long for Naruto to start categorizing the different sticky notes in his own categories: ones that she had used before and ones she hadn't used before.
For instance, Naruto had a very clear memory that he had seen flowers (obviously), butterflies, sail boats, squares, triangles, circles, smiley faces, cats and dogs plastered over his apartment in various times in the past. Which left, unfortunately, dozens more he had not seen in his apartment before.
Running his eyes over the sticky notes displayed along the shelf, he decided that since he had to look at the notes more than she did, and they had to capture his attention, he was going to choose one according to his own preferences. He needed something small and cute, something that he wouldn't mind seeing everyday and everywhere-
"Bingo!" he exclaimed with a snap of his fingers. "These are perfect!"
He reached for the package and felt his heart race at the idea of seeing hundreds of these little shapes trailing across the walls of his apartment, plastered oh-so-innocently on his mirrors and doors, devilishly on his windows and furniture, and smuggled into his mailbox with words like: Do your laundry! – You're out of chocolate! – Rookie Nine get-together at 9. – Need anything? Write me a note. ;) – Sasuke called. – Hokage's Office at 12! – I get off from work at 5. Dinner? – Sakura's birthday! – Happy birthday, Naruto-kun! – Meet your accountant today!
And his favourite: Welcome home! I'm at Ichiraku's! XD
He smiled, something warm pooling into his stomach and comforting him in a way only her notes were able to. Slipping the sticky notes from its hook, he remembered the first note she had ever left him: I noticed your injury. Hope this helps. – Hinata. It had been accompanied by one of her herbal ointments; the injury being the wound on his cheek he had received from a one-month mission prior. Although strange at first, her notes had now grown on him and not a day went by where he didn't receive at least one sticky note from her. He couldn't remember a time when there hadn't been a note. He preferred to not remember the time before her sticky notes.
They made him feel like he was wanted and that someone was taking care of him. He enjoyed being taken care of, he realized.
Sheepish, he carried his groceries to the cash, the sticky notes in hand, and paid for his items before detouring to the dry cleaner's. As short as his memory could be sometimes, ever since her notes he was getting better and better at remembering the little things. Like, for example, how she liked to bake cinnamon buns on Friday nights so that they'd last the weekend, or how she liked hot milk with a small spoon of sugar on cold winter mornings, or how she liked to take a swim during full moons, or how she always knew when he wanted ramen, wanted a new set of kunais, wanted a pair of flaming yellow gloves, wanted a hug… wanted warmth and stability.
"Thanks!" he chirped, taking the freshly laundries clothes, juggling his groceries in the other hand.
The owner of the shop nodded as Naruto pushed the door open with his shoulder to get outside. It was still morning with lunch in another hour, but he paid it no mind when he dumped his groceries (still in the plastic bags) into the fridge and tossed his dry cleaning onto the couch. Stretching for a moment, ever glad that Kakashi was giving him a week off from missions, Naruto decided to use the rest of the day for training – until she got home, of course.
"How're you feeling?" Sasuke asked, leaning against the tree with his arms crossed nonchalantly, as if they hadn't spent the last six hours fighting it out.
Naruto plopped down onto the base of the tree, watching the sun set and paint the sky orange and pink. "A little sore, I think." He paused, and then grinned; whisker marks predominate. "But I think I got you more than you got me."
The Uchiha snorted with an eye roll. "That's not what I meant, dobe."
Naruto scowled. "Then what'd you mean?"
Sasuke stared at him, as if searching for signs Naruto wasn't sure of, and then looked to the sky. "Never mind."
Irritated, Naruto turned his head away from his best friend, childishly upset. After the whole fiasco with Madara, Naruto was glad that Sasuke was back with them, even if he was under constant ANBU watch. It was nice to know that he was there right beside him. But even so, he had forgotten how aggravating the last Uchiha could be. Glad, nevertheless.
"How's the Hyuga?" Sasuke suddenly asked, his eyes never leaving the lonely cloud in the sky.
"Neji?" Naruto enquired, confused. "You wanna spar with him?"
Again, Sasuke rolled his eyes. "The girl."
"Oh!" Naruto perked, grinning. "Good. Didn't see her today cause I slept in, but-"
"She leaves the notes. Yes, I know," Sasuke clipped, feeling a headache coming on. There only so much Naruto gusto he could take per day, and the subject of the girl always got the jinchuriki loud and expressive… too expressive some would say. "Is she single?"
Naruto paused, taken aback. For some reason, he suddenly felt very cold and uncomfortable. He hadn't known Sasuke had had an interest in Hinata. Of course, if he stopped to think about it, it made sense. They were both from powerful clans and, with Hinata now no longer the heir of the Hyuga, she would be perfect for the last Uchiha. An Uchiha-Hyuga hybrid would be legendary, but upsetting. Very upsetting in Naruto's mind. Hinata wouldn't look well with Uchiha, he decided.
"A-Are you-" he broke off in mid-croak, feeling really small. "Are you interested in her?"
If Sasuke could look surprised (and Naruto was pretty sure the Uchiha was genetically incapable of being surprised), then he would have looked at that moment. Seeing as he was Sasuke, he could only stare at Naruto unblinkingly, having forgotten the function on how to breathe.
"I'll take that as a 'no,' then?" Naruto enquired cautiously, grinning sheepishly as he scratched the back of his neck.
"Yes, that is a 'no,'" Sasuke confirmed firmly – much too firmly.
Naruto couldn't explain the relief he felt at Sasuke's answer, or how he really wanted to see Hinata at that very moment to hide her away from Sasuke… or make it so that Sasuke would be permanently homosexual – not even bisexual – but just gay. GAY.
Clearing his throat, Naruto faced his friend. "Why do you ask?"
Sasuke shrugged, but Naruto could see that the Uchiha was troubled, not necessarily over Hinata, but definitely over him. He couldn't fathom why though.
"Just keep a good eye on her," Sasuke warned, pulling the Konoha headband over his eyes to shield against the sun. "Or rather," he added as an after note, "the guys around her."
Naruto didn't understand what his friend meant or why the advice, but he didn't have the time to think about it for much longer when he noticed the time. Leaping onto his feet, he patted the bits of grass off his pants and winced at the dirt and grass stains. Hinata was going to be upset.
"Gotta go," the jinchuriki announced with a wide grin.
Sasuke smirked, knowing exactly why Naruto had to go. "Just watch her, okay?"
Naruto shrugged. "Sure."
With that, the jinchuriki sauntered off towards his apartment, hoping to bump into her on her way back to her own apartment. His expectations weren't disappointed when he caught the scent of cinnamon in the wind when he neared their apartments. Like all the other times, instinctively and naturally, he beamed into the setting sun when he saw her long black ponytail swaying in the breeze, her white eyes lighting up when she saw him, and her medic-nin uniform all limp and dirty as testament to her hard and patient work.
He had missed her.
Running up to her, he wanted to say that he got her a new pack of sticky notes, wanted to speak first, wanted her approval, but she beat him to it.
"Did you get your dry cleaning?" she teased with that delicate quirk to her glossy lips.
"Yep!" Naruto answered obediently with a nod.
"And groceries?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am!" he replied with a salute and a smile that mirrored hers.
Hinata giggled, a reverberating chime that tickled him and filled him with something soft and warm. "Good."
"About your sticky notes-"
"Oh, yes!" Hinata exclaimed, her cheeks red from laughing. "I got a new pack just after I got off work."
Although a little disappointed that she already got some new notes, Naruto was eager to know what shape. "What do they look like?"
Hinata perked a brow, goading him, "You'll just have to see tomorrow."
"Aww!" Naruto groaned, playing along. "You know I'm not patient enough."
"Well, Naruto Uzumaki," Hinata lectured mockingly. "You'll have to learn, don't you? Aren't you a jounin?"
Naruto smirked and shrugged. "I guess I'll just have to wait for tomorrow then."
"Yes, you do," Hinata finalized, acting exaggeratedly like a matronly mother talking to her bad son. "How was your day?"
Naruto looked to the sun and decided to relieve her. "It's pretty late. How about you go home and take a shower first? We'll talk later tonight."
Hinata smiled, happy that he thought of her. "Thanks, Naruto-kun. I'll see you tonight."
"Seeya!" He waved goodbye, watching her enter her apartment building before entering his – the one right beside hers.
He would just have to give her the sticky notes after her new ones ran out, he decided as he put away his dry cleaning and whipped up some of that instant ramen he loved so much. It wasn't Ichiraku's, but it was still good. It was so much better because it was, really, the only thing he knew how to cook.
After an hour of mindless television, he dumped the empty ramen bowl into the trash and picked up the dry eraser board resting against the couch. Pulling the curtains from his living room window, his mouth split into a wide smile when he saw her already by her living room window holding up a small chalkboard.
How was your day, Naruto-kun?
So many times. So many times he had wondered at the chances of her apartment being directly across from his. So many times he had wondered how they had begun to speak without speaking. So many times he had wondered how he could have lived his life without her for all these years. So many times he had wondered how lucky he was to have more than a decade's worth of death and destruction and spontaneity, only to find life and peace and stability.
It had been worth the wait.
He hurriedly scribbled down an answer: Awesomesauce!
Hinata ducked her head, but he saw her smile and that water-coloured blush.
"How beautiful," he thought.
I saw Neji at the grocery and I got everything on the list.
Good. I was worried that maybe he'd be late.
No, impossible. He. Is. A. HYUGA.
They shared a smile and a silent laugh. Her eyes like stars in his blue skies.
Got that. I didn't remember how much I had until I got there.
She rolled her eyes.
You always forget.
Here she placed her hands on her waist and pretended to look mad.
He grinned saucily.
Thank Kami I have you.
Of course. Didn't you get any training done?
Yep! With Sasuke. Beat his ass BAD.
She raised of brow.
Is that sarcasm?
Can you tell?
Then it's not sarcasm.
How was your day?
Hinata huffed, conveying how tired she was.
Long and loud. There's a round of chicken pox going around.
He cringed in sympathy.
The children were all sad.
He felt his heart twist at the unshed tears in her eyes and quickly turned back to his dry eraser board to scribble an answer, but when he finally looked up he felt like someone had punched him in the face. She was no longer by her window, but by the front door speaking to a man – a handsome man – who was handing her a bouquet of flowers – a handsome man handing her an expensive bouquet of red roses.
He swallowed uncomfortably at the deep blush adorning her cheeks.
It wasn't right.
He didn't know why, but in a split second he had closed the curtains to his windows, the dry eraser board abandoned on the floor. He must have looked like an idiot because he had also run his hands through his hair a couple of times, and his face was red from the way his intestines seemed to coil around his heart. He couldn't breathe, he realized almost too late, contorting into himself.
It wasn't according to routine.
He ran to the bathroom and splashed cold water onto his face. He didn't understand why he was upset. There was nothing to be upset about. There was nothing to be upset about. There was nothing to be upset about.
It was something different.
What happened after he fell into his bed, he couldn't remember. He didn't even remember setting his alarm clock because the next morning he had woke up at six – according to routine. He got up, took a shower, had breakfast and went down to check his mailbox.
Have a nice day, Naruto-kun.
He breathed a sigh of relief.
It was still the same.
It was still a constant.
It was still stable.
He was about to set out for the day, but when he picked up the red apple-shaped sticky note, he found another one below it.
I won't be able to make it for dinner tonight. You remember how to make spaghetti, right?
His blood froze.
It was different.
It was altered.
It was spontaneous.
He crumpled the notes and promptly forgot about them, or at least tried as he threw them into the nearest trash can. He felt disoriented now, as if someone had disturbed something within him, as if someone had plucked the one stable thing from his life and placed him in chaos. He had had enough of chaos. He had grew up in an environment where everyone had hated him, had stood up against the devil himself for the sake of those people who had hated him, had saved everyone from utter destruction… He had felt like it had been his time to be comforted.
He didn't understand why she couldn't make it to dinner.
He didn't remember how to make spaghetti.
"Naruto!" Sakura yelled.
But it was too late. Sasuke's chidori slammed into his chest and shot him into the nearest tree, splintering the old oak in half. It didn't matter anyway. It didn't feel like anything. If Naruto had known earlier that invincibility was the result of a warmth, a warmth he never knew how much he cherished, being taken away… he would have done it sooner.
It didn't hurt.
It wasn't long before he succumbed to the darkness.
He groaned, his eyes fluttering open to face the hospital ceiling. He was so familiar with the hospital now, that it didn't even faze him to see himself in a hospital bed. Obviously he had been injured. Thinking for a second, he realized that it had been Sasuke who had placed him in the hospital. That bastard… not that Naruto could blame the guy. He hadn't been paying much attention himself.
"Naruto-kun?" Hinata enquired worriedly.
He blinked and saw her standing beside his bed, running a hand briefly over his forehead. So warm, so soft… so stable… He looked her over; she was dressed in her medic-nin uniform (so cute), which meant that she must be his doctor. Sakura had the day off, if he remembered correctly.
"Hinata," he breathed. "How long was I out?"
She smiled, but the red in her eyes told him that she had been crying. He felt like shit for making her cry. "Not long. Only a few hours."
He moved his lips to a smile and nodded. "Good."
"If you want," she said softly, "I can help you home and make you spaghetti."
It was still the same.
He beamed and nodded, feeling the last of his stress melt away – a stress he hadn't known he had. How simple everything was when she was beside him, brushing his hair from his forehead and caressing the side of his face. How easy life was with her near and caring for him. He liked the stableness that came with her, that seemed to roll off from her and infuse the calm and warmth into him, even more so when she was in his kitchen, sliding the pasta into the boiling water as he busied with stirring the tomato-meat sauce, as per her instructions.
The steam from the pots puffed up like cumulous clouds and reflected the light from her eyes like stars. He knew he was staring, but for a moment that morning, he hadn't thought she would be there for dinner, but she was – right beside him – peeking off her to side to catch him staring.
They shared a smile.
"Are you sure you don't want to sit down?" Hinata asked, concerned as she put the lid over the pasta pot. "I can finish up. You should rest."
Naruto shook his head. "Nuh-uh. I'm perfectly fine! You know I heal fast."
She frowned, but didn't say anything else. To reassure her, he kept his smile on (even when his cheeks started to hurt) as they finished cooking. He knew she worried a lot, and in particular about him and her family and her teammates and her friends. In fact, there was very little that didn't worry her that Naruto had begun to take better care of himself for her sake. It had merely been an accident earlier that day… and Sasuke had been an ass for not pulling back.
Naruto's stomach growled as he ladled the meat sauce over the pasta and continued to stir the concoction while Hinata placed the plate down in front of his usual seat… Plate, as in singular…
"Where's your plate?" he enquired curiously.
She hesitated above the sink, trying to rinse out the pasta pot. At first, he thought she was feeling ill, perhaps too worried over him to eat (it had happened before), but then he remembered her note from that morning: I won't be able to make it for dinner tonight.
He paused, feeling numb as he lifted the sauce from the heat and placed it elsewhere on the stove to cool, an action to hide the discomfort that suddenly writhed through his veins. It was inexplicable, an unknown, as to where that coldness had come from or why he couldn't feel his limbs.
"I-I have to go, N-Naruto-kun," she spoke quietly.
He resisted a frown. He hadn't heard her stutter in a long time, and to hear it now was rather disconcerting. "Oh…" He fidgeted. "Where are you going?"
She avoided eye-contact. "S-Somewhere."
Naruto let himself frown this time, but with her busy wiping down the counters, she couldn't see. "Oh." And then he forced cheerfulness into his voice. "Well, have fun! I'll see you tomorrow?"
He hadn't meant to phrase it in a question, but he hadn't known how else to say it. With how strange and unusual the day had gone, he thought… feared… that perhaps tomorrow would be even more irregular. He squirmed at the possibility, nauseous when she finally left him alone with his plate of spaghetti.
"Bye…" he said, his throat dry and mouth full of sand. He spoke too late. She had already gone.
Uneasy, he settled into his seat – alone. He ate the spaghetti – alone. It tasted like dust - alone. Usually he enjoyed non-ramen food. Usually she was there to enjoy it with him. In fact, it was usually through her that he would even eat non-ramen food, but… His eyes roamed across the empty counters of his kitchen to the lonely table in the middle of the room… But without her, he couldn't even admire the skilfully seasoned sauce, sublime and mellow, when all he could think about was where she was going and, more importantly, with who… or why she wasn't with him.
His mind turned back to the night before, to the man who had given her flowers. He wondered who the man was, or why he had given Hinata flowers. He wondered if he was a civilian or a ninja. He wondered if he knew who Hinata was – a Hyuga heir who had been placed aside for her younger sister, making way for her to pursue her own dreams in becoming a medic-nin and moving out of the Hyuga compound for some independence.
He had a nightmare about that man that night. He dreamt that the man had kidnapped Hinata and hid her somewhere he couldn't find. He dreamt that he had braved the mountains and seas in search for her, and he would in real life too. It was no surprise, then, that when he woke that morning in mild distress, feeling a desperate need to check up on her, he had somehow ended up on the floor instead of on his bed. Fortunately, his uneasiness was relieved when he found her apple-shaped note in his mailbox. She had always known how to calm him.
Take it easy today, Naruto-kun! Remember your injury!
He chuckled at that, feeling himself relaxing in the knowledge that she hadn't been kidnapped. She never seemed to remember that he was a fast healer and that Sasuke could never best him in anything. Sometimes she was just too adorable.
The next morning, her note read: Remember to vacuum! It's been a week.
He grumbled, but he did do as he was told.
He wondered if she would be free for dinner that night.
It's going to rain today! Bring an umbrella!
She had been right. She was always right.
Too bad he had felt too lazy to go back up to his apartment to get an umbrella. Thus, that afternoon, to the amusement of his neighbours (and to all of Konoha), he had walked into his apartment soaked to the bone. The children had found it funny to point and stare at the "great Konoha hero."
He had hoped that perhaps she would be waiting in his kitchen with a cup of cocoa.
Sakura's sick! Bring a bowl of chicken soup to her!
He wasn't a fool to disregard Hinata's advice again after that rainy day, and felt quite chipper actually when Sakura hugged him, nose red and sneezing, saying how Sasuke hadn't yet to visit her and that the last Uchiha could be a jerk sometimes. Naruto was very glad he had listened to Hinata on that one.
Ramen special at the grocery today!
He didn't need to be told twice, able to completely restock his ramen supply in an hour. It was times like these when he really appreciated his shadow clones.
Sorry, Naruto-kun! I'm busy tonight. Have a nice day!
He slipped the little apple-shaped note into his pocket with a frown. He had left her a note the day before about perhaps having dinner at Ichiraku's, but she was busy. Busy. He frowned again. She had never been busy before. In fact, she had gone to great lengths to clear her schedule for him before…
He cringed, realizing that he sounded like a pompous ass.
She was a prized medic-nin, on par with Sakura in her own specialization and noteworthy even in Ino's books. He knew that Tenten admired Hinata for more than her capabilities as a ninja, but also as someone who had the patience to deal with stubborn men… him included.
Naruto sighed, knowing that he should really stop being selfish with Hinata. She had always taken care of him – he knew that – he was constantly being reminded that by Kiba and Shino (although Shino's reminders had always been the silent type). Perhaps, he figured, that it was time to take care of Hinata? It was obvious, after all, that if she was too busy to have dinner, then she must have been very busy and very stressed.
He remembered that whenever Sakura was upset or feeling strained that she liked to get flowers. He could get flowers for Hinata, he supposed.
"Naruto!" Ino said, surprised to see him in the flower shop, her blue eyes wide and disbelieving. "What are you doing here?"
Naruto shrugged sheepishly. He knew that Ino could sometimes be a gossip, and he certainly didn't want her to misread his intentions in buying flowers for Hinata.
He knew that Hinata liked lilies, white like her eyes and in full bloom like her heart.
"I came to get a couple of lilies," he answered Ino.
She narrowed her eyes to look him up and down in suspicion. For a full minute he just stood there as she inspected him, feeling uneasy, but wasn't about to fidget and show some weakness. Everyone in their group knew that Ino was a Predator with a capital "P."
"Why…?" she finally drawled out, raising a brow, just daring him to say something wrong.
He shrugged again. It was good to be ambiguous in front of Ino. "Thought my apartment would look nice with them."
Ino's eye suddenly went big to the point where her eyebrows disappeared behind her bangs. "They're for Hinata, aren't they?
She spoke in a hushed down, almost in reverence, as if afraid any louder would scare him out of his wits. He had to admit, he was a little disconcerted by both her observation and reaction. He actually fidgeted then.
"Erm…" he trailed, trying to deter her (correct) assumption. "I-"
"Oh, Naruto!" Ino suddenly wailed, suddenly reaching over the counter to take him by his shoulders. What was supposed to be an act of sympathy turned out to be quite the opposite, what with her shaking him in anguish. "I'm sorry, Naruto! You must have heard, haven't you? Everyone's just so sorry for you!"
Naruto blinked, quite calm even with her shaking him like that and bawling like a banshee… not so much as tears, but definitely wailing. "Um… Ino?"
She paused, staring at him in expectation.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
She blinked again.
"Nothing," she said, much too quickly to be "nothing."
It was now his turn to narrow his eyes in suspicion. "Tell me."
Ino flitted her eyes to the ground, and then to the sides, avoiding eye-contact as best as she could. She had failed terribly as a ninja at that point. "Nothing."
"It's something," he concluded unhappily, crossing his arms. He didn't appreciate his friends keeping things from him, and definitely not about another one of his friends. He worried that perhaps something was wrong with Hinata and that they were just pretending that nothing was happening in order to protect him. Well, he didn't need protection! Hinata and him were, like, best friends.
"Ino." He injected a warning tone into his voice then.
She stilled, feeling a chill, and then sighed, giving up. Squirming, obviously uncomfortable, she lifted her head to meet him in the eye. With a slight wince, Ino answered, very quietly, "You know…"
He raised his brow when the rest of her sentence was lost.
Clearing her throat, she tried again. "You know that…" He nodded for her to continue. "You know that Hinata has… a boyfriend, right?"
He blinked again.
"What do you mean?" he finally asked, dumbfounded.
"She had a boyfriend," Ino repeated, this time much more firmly, and a little irritated that he was playing dumb.
"A boyfriend?" he asked.
"A boyfriend," she confirmed.
He blinked again.
"Oh," he finally said.
Blank. He was just blank.
All Ino could do was shake her head, perhaps a little disappointed, but definitely sorry for him, and then pushed a bouquet of lilies into his hands, free of charge. He was a dead man, whether he knew it or not.
Naruto managed a "Thank you," and then made to visit Hinata at the hospital. She should still be on her shift; lunch wasn't until another hour for her. He had yet to understand what, exactly, Ino meant by "boyfriend." Perhaps she had meant a boy who was a friend, like Naruto, because it certainly couldn't be a… boyfriend… like… a suitor.
He stopped in the middle of the street, pondering a little agitatedly at the prospect of Hinata's "boyfriend" not being a boy who was a friend, like him, but rather a… boyfriend like a suitor.
He cringed at thought and continued his way.
Stiff, mechanical even, he entered the building and found her in the childrens' ward, checking up on the chicken pox patients. He couldn't describe it, but when he finally laid eyes on her for the first time in what had to be a week, he felt all his problems melt away – all talks of boyfriends or boy who was a friend melt away, to be replaced by a mellow warmth wrapping over him like a blanket… a soothing caress on his face… a soft, pliant kiss…
He never told her, but she was beautiful, simply stunning whenever she was working. With her long hair drawn back to a bun, wisps framing her face, the reassurance in her eyes whenever she spoke to a patient, or how her crisp white uniform seemed to hug her curves… She made the hospital, a place usually associated with death and sickness, become a place of life and hope.
Grip tightening around the lilies, Naruto suddenly found himself quite nervous… a feeling he couldn't account for, given his situation. Obviously he had not seen her in a week, but that gave him no reason to be nervous. He had been away for months on missions and whenever he returned, she had always been there as if he hadn't left. There was no reason to feel disquieted… shy at the moment… holding a bouquet of lilies… with the sunlight from the windows shining on her just so, with her glowing just so.
She took his breath away.
Finding courage, he stepped forward-
He choked. Not even choked. Just stopped breathing.
It hurt to breathe.
A man, the man who had given her flowers a week ago was standing at the other side of the bed with a smile. It seemed as if the man was waiting on Hinata to finish with the child because he looked like he wanted to speak to her, chipper and eager for her attention. It shocked Naruto when the man reached forward and took Hinata's hand into his own and-
He was being strangled. He felt like someone was strangling him-
She was blushing.
-because he couldn't breathe.
The bouquet of lilies crashed onto the floor, ignored as the man who had been holding onto it, fled from the building as if his life depended on it.
It was different, altered, spontaneous.
What happened to his sameness, constant, stability?
The next morning, there was no note.
He asked Kakashi-sensei for a mission, a long mission, and the Hokage gave it to him with sympathy in his eyes. Naruto couldn't understand the sympathy from his sensei. He couldn't understand why he was numb all over and couldn't feel. There was no problem, he told himself.
There was nothing out of the ordinary.
It was still the same.
He raced across the country in search of the missing-nin, focusing on his mission.
It had to be the same.
He forgot how Sasuke had gone easy on him the next day, or how Sakura had hugged him in the middle of the street, or how Sai had finally curved his insults, or how Shikamaru and Chouji had patted him on the shoulder in an attempt to comfort him, or how Ino had offered him another free bouquet of lilies, or how Neji had rolled his eyes and told him that he had known it would happen, or how Tenten had elbowed her teammate for the uncalled-for comment, or how Lee had said that he understood the pain, or how Kiba sighed in compassion, or how Shino had advised him to learn from this experience, or how…
Or how she had returned that night and drew her curtains closed… from him.
He forgot all that as he followed the missing-nin into a deserted town, the buildings as hollow and skeletal as the heart that moved weakly inside of him.
Instead, he focused on what would happen once he got back. He focused on how Sasuke would adopt him as a brother, or how Sakura would offer to be the mother of his children, or how Sai would be a younger brother, or how Shikamaru and Chouji would be uncles to his children, or how Ino would be that crazy aunt, or how Neji would gladly be his children's' sensei, or how Tenten and Lee would babysit them so that he'd have a night off with Sakura, or how Kiba and Shino would be there with advice as to how to take care of small things…
Or how she would…
They would be a family.
They would all be his family.
He threw himself at the missing-nin and disengaged all his opponent's traps in one go.
He had always wanted a family.
He had always wanted to be in a family.
He winced when his opponent threw him through a house… and another house… and another…
He wanted her to be in his family.
He ducked before a swarm of kunai and flashed toward the missing-nin.
He wanted her to be his family.
He punched his opponent in the face…
He wanted her warmth.
He wanted her comfort.
He wanted her stability.
… and again…
That man didn't even know Hinata like he did, didn't know the first thing about her. He didn't know how a soft pink would dust at the bridge of her nose whenever she smiled at him, or how she placed a hand over her heart whenever she laughed with him, or how her eyes would light up like the stars whenever she was with him, or how she loved to playfully splash him with water whenever she went training with him, or how she would put her hair down in his apartment because she secretly knew he liked it, or how she would kiss him goodnight whenever he was drunk, or how she loved to make bunnies out of his apple slices for him because he secretly thought they were cute – OR HOW SHE WROTE HIM NOTES IN THE MORNINGS, IN THE AFTERNOONS, IN THE EVENINGS, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY!
HE DIDN'T' KNOW ANY OF IT! OF HER!
He punched the missing-nin one last time, knocking him unconscious, trying to catch his breath. He hadn't even known that he had been crying until he saw the tearstains on the missing-nin's cloak.
He let out a sob.
He didn't want to cry.
He really didn't want to cry.
But he couldn't imagine, even for a second, a life without her.
Or a life where she wasn't his.
He was being selfish, but wasn't he entitled to being a little selfish? Didn't he deserve happiness? Didn't he deserve her warmth? Comfort? Softness? The stability of family, home and friendship that could only come from her? That could only be her?
He clenched his fists around the missing-nin's collar and heaved them both up.
It was time to return to Konoha.
It was time to return to her.
She wasn't home.
He rubbed his forehead, rocking impatiently on his couch, wondering when she'd be home, fearing that perhaps she would never return. According to Kakashi-sensei, she had gone on a mission… with the man… the man who was, he could finally admit, her boyfriend, as in suitor.
They had been gone for a week now.
He stood suddenly from the couch and began to pace. So many possibilities, all sour to taste, were running through his head. All possibilities, all bitter to taste, seemed to have Hinata end up with the man, married with children.
Naruto grabbed a cushion from the couch – a cushion she had helped him pick out – and threw it recklessly across the living room.
What if she was lost forever?
He swallowed, hard, uncomfortably, and felt his heart slow to a terrifying deathly pace.
What if she could never be his?
He slowly placed a hand over his heart, hoping to still the pain, the sudden searing cut through his lungs.
He shouldn't think about it.
It wasn't a possibility.
She made him so happy that he could sometimes die… but if she wasn't with him, then he would most certainly die. A life without her, was a life not worth living.
He had to distract himself.
Flustered, frustrated, he hurried into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. He had been away for a month – a month – a mistake he would never make again, for when he finally returned, expecting to see her, he had been met with sheets that had not been freshly laundered, an apartment of dust, a room that did not smell like her. She had not been in his apartment all month.
It hurt to know that she had… perhaps… forgotten him?
He growled, ripping away the lone plastic bag in the refrigerator and throwing it to the ground.
She mustn't think, even for a moment, that he didn't care, that he didn't care that he appreciated her and needed her more than he could say or believe. She mustn't think that he didn't… didn't…
He huffed, unable to find the word for his feelings… this feeling…
He leaned against the fridge, pressing his forehead against the cool surface to calm himself, to anchor himself. It was then, perhaps by sheer luck, that he spotted something pink on the floor.
He leaned down and-
"You changed me!"
He paused, his heart catching. Something like hope warmed and pooled into his stomach. He was thinking that it may be destiny…
"Your smile saved me!"
His hand reached out on its own…
"So I'm not afraid to die protecting you!"
… and picked up the package of pink heart-shaped stick notes from the floor.
It must have fallen out of the plastic bag when he threw it.
"Because I love you!"
He smiled ruefully at the memory. He could never forget the first time a girl confessed to him, ready to die for him, and although sometimes he felt guilty for holding onto her, for having her as a constant, for her organizing his messy life in the form of neat and tidy sticky notes… he needed someone to do it.
And he would rather her than anyone else.
He would rather her for anything than anyone else.
He needed her.
Hands clenched around the package of sticky notes, he dragged himself back into the living room, the only place where he could feel, however little, her. All he needed was a chance to tell her how he felt, for surely he understood now what it all meant. If she had been able to confess years ago, then surely he, the Naruto Uzumaki, would be brave enough to do so too. Surely he, the Naruto Uzumaki, would do it in a way that showed how much sorry he was for rejecting her, how thankful he was for having her, how indebted he was to her stability…
The lights went on in her apartment and he jumped, trembling with hope and trepidation. It had been so long… Did she still feel the same?
She had a boyfriend.
Before he could run and hide and cry himself to sleep, the curtains in her apartment slid aside like an ice cube through water, and he had no choice but to stand there and be thankful for everything just to see her there smiling at him. Even when her hair was tousled and skin dirty and clothing marred from her mission, he could still see the light dust of pink on the bridge of her nose and the stars in her eyes.
She was perfection personified…
She held up her chalkboard: Welcome home, Naruto-kun!
His heart leapt and he wanted to cry.
It was still the same.
He was so happy, elated, blessed that he was too afraid to move in fear that it was all a dream.
I'll be right back! I'm going to take a shower first.
He read those words and realized that she was going to leave her window. If she was going to leave her window, he may never see her again…
In a bout of adrenaline, he ripped open the package of sticky notes and hurriedly grabbed a marker. He wasn't ready to let her go – he would never be ready to let her go, and if he ever got the chance to have her, he was sure as Hell not letting her go. He wasn't the Naruto Uzumaki for nothing!
He wrote a letter on a single note and pasted it onto the window, startling her, but he wasn't going to stop. If he did, she may leave, the man may show up – she would never be his.
He wrote on another sticky note and pasted it onto the window, right beside the first one.
And then another-
-and another, another, another-
-until, finally, eight little pink heart-shaped sticky notes, all lined up neatly one after another, covered the middle of his large living room window for all to see. He didn't even care if her neighbours were peeking out behind their living room windows to see what was happening, why the Naruto Uzumaki was all pink and flustered and not at all ANBU-like – but he didn't care.
He may have worked hard for his entire life to be the hero of Konoha, but now, at this moment, between two apartment buildings, between two windows, between two people and eight pink heart-shaped sticky notes…
He just wanted to be her hero.
And then what felt like a miracle happened.
Naruto dared not breathe in case it frightened her. He was sweating, his nerves were pinched, he feared rejection, but by the Gods he couldn't describe the joy he felt when she smiled openly, happy tears rolling down her cheeks.
This was what Heaven felt like.
This was what eternal happiness felt like.
To spend the rest of his life with her would mean this exact eternal happiness.
He couldn't wait.
He had to see her to get the exact answer-
She was out the door-
So was he-
They met in the exact middle in-between their buildings, out of breath and hammering hearts. They couldn't even speak, just looking at each other, not knowing how to begin. Naruto was having a hard enough time thinking properly with her so close, her warmth just at arm's length and beauty reachable. After so long being apart… he just wanted to hold her and assure himself that she was still there, willing to be there for him, willing to be there with him…
He opened his mouth to confess-
She held up a red lips-shaped sticky note.
May I kiss you?
He paused, too elated to command himself to move. Surely he must be dreaming…
Worried, she pressed the sticky note to his lips, getting ready to bolt if he didn't do something – anything.
Finding air, he chuckled against the note over his mouth, slowly reaching up and taking hold of her hands over the sticky note. Carefully, patiently, warmly… lovingly he pulled her hand down, along with the sticky note, to smile at her.
"You don't have to ask," he said, a little hoarse and a whole lot of nervous.
And then he leaned in and placed his lips on hers. Soft, pliant, warm, stable, she was everything he could ever need or want. Hinata Hyuga was the one woman he could ever love, in this life or the next. And as they leaned back to catch their breaths, red and shy, he knew then that he had had nothing to worry about.
She was his long before he had wanted her.
Because she knew, had always known, that she was what he needed most.
She had always been wiser than him.
Without giving her the proper time to recuperate, he swooped in again with a gentle bite. The squeal she emitted was something he was going to enjoy for years to come. Above them, plastered across his living room window were eight pink heart-shaped sticky notes still there for everyone to see if they looked.
I LOVE YOU
And he would spend a lifetime confirming his words to her, no matter how many sticky notes it took.